Curator-gallerist Pravina Mecklai has been an art lover from age six, when her father Jhamat used to take her to the three art galleries in Bombay at the time – Jehangir, Pundole and Taj Art Gallery. She started buying art when she was 16 with her meager pocket money and in 1999, founded Jamaat Art Gallery as a tribute to her dad.
Eighteen years and hundreds of exhibitions later, Jamaat has established itself as one of the prime galleries in Mumbai’s art district, Colaba. We catch up with Ms Mecklai to learn about her artful journey.
How was the gallery scene 18 years ago in Mumbai, and how has the art district changed over the past two decades?
In 1999, it was almost like a golden era of Indian art. There were lots of upper middle class people who had higher disposable incomes, and could afford to buy original art worth Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh without busting their banks. On the other side, there were several younger artists who created excellent works in the same price range and could sell about 10 –20 works a year and make a decent living. This led to a period of great creativity and art.
In about mid-2000s, art was seen as an investment option and prices were manipulated by dealers, auction houses and gallerists, where they went up sometimes 20 times in 10 months, with no justification at all. This was an awful time – when shoddy work was created and sold. The 2008 financial crisis burst that bubble. And for about six months nobody entered the galleries, let alone buying the work.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as an art curator?
The biggest challenge as an art curator is firstly choosing the artists and then tightly curating the show. Sometimes, a promising artist slumps in his creativity and the works are not as good as expected. Sometimes, the artist gets bored and repetitive. I like to mix up the collections, and showcase established artists as well as young talent. I love sculptors, as they are so tactile and approachable.
Tell us more about the show you’ve chosen for your anniversary month—Lines from Mumbai to Venice.
I chose fine art photography for our 18th anniversary celebration as this is an art form not seen and appreciated as much as it should be. We are ready for this in India now. They younger buyers are eager to look beyond the traditional paintings and sculptures. Fiorenzo is a very good fine art photographer and brings a global sensitivity to his work. I thought his work was worthy for our 18thanniversary show.
Over the past 18 years, what are some of your personal favourite shows?
My personal favourites are shows by Samir Mondal, AV Ilango, and the late sculptor Sarbari Roy Chowdhury. Sunil Das was another favourite and friend with his energy and passion in his horses and bulls. Our first show by K Laxma Goud will always have a special place in my heart, as it was the first.
The shows we have had with the masters of the traditional Indian arts are very special. Works in bronze sculpture by the late Jaidev Baghel from Chattisgarh, Mithila paintings by the late Satya Narayan and his wife Moti Lal Karn from Biihar, Kalamkari paintings by J Niranjan Chetty from Andhra Pradesh, Gond paintings by Venkat Shyam from Madhya Pradesh. These are all award-winning artists whose works are in museums all over the world, but still not appreciated in India.
One memory of the gallery that stands out in all of these 18 years?
The most dramatic incident was when the building that houses Jamaat collapsed about 13 years ago. Fortunately it was a Sunday, so nobody was hurt. I got a call from a neighbour and went running to the site. It was like a bomb had hit the place! There was rubble all across the road. For two days, we could not enter the gallery. Finally when we got in, it was like a miracle to see there was not a crack on the wall, and all the art was safe. We shifted to another place which was on the 7th floor, and I was nervous about people coming up. By the grace of god, the very first show was a sell-out success. That’s when I realised that if you are good and straight and sincere, people will come to you anywhere. We moved back to our space two years later and have been here ever since.